Syria crisis: David Cameron makes case for military action

free syrian army fighter and burnt out tank The fighting between rebels and pro-government forces continues in Syria

Prime Minister David Cameron has put his case for military action against Syria to British MPs, but has conceded intelligence that the regime used chemical weapons is not "100% certain".

He told an emergency debate that UK intelligence chiefs believed it "highly likely" the Syrian government was responsible for the 21 August attack.

But he said MPs must make a judgement call ahead of a Commons vote.

The UK could launch strikes without UN backing, according to legal advice.

Action would be a legal "humanitarian intervention" - even if it was vetoed at the UN, the government's summary of the advice said.

Mr Cameron told MPs - who have been recalled early from their summer recess - he was convinced it was "beyond doubt" Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime was behind the attack.

Start Quote

All the main party leaders are clearly struggling to find positions that their own supporters can back.”

End Quote

But he added: "In the end there is no 100% certainty about who is responsible."

Mr Cameron also stressed that unless action was taken Damascus would conclude it could use such weapons again and again.

UK opposition leader Ed Miliband said Labour was not ruling out military intervention but insisted there had to be a clear road-map to a decision.

Meanwhile, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council met to discuss the crisis. Two of them, Russia and China, have blocked previous resolutions on the issue and analysts predict they will again.

Russia - Syria's main international ally - called the meeting, which has now ended with no progress towards a consensus, the BBC understands.

Deter future attacks

The Syrian government has denied it is behind the suspected chemical attack near Damascus last week, in which hundreds of people are reported to have died, blaming opposition forces.

US President Barack Obama has said he has not yet decided on a plan for action against Syria, but the White House has said any response will be based on US national security interests.

The White House is due to give senior US Congress members a classified briefing on why it is certain Syria has used chemical weapons.

Other nations are also considering the next move.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called for patience and insists he will receive a report on Saturday from weapons inspectors investigating the attack.


The shadow of Iraq still hangs over the use of intelligence to justify military action. More than a decade on, we are presented with a very different document.

This time we get the conclusions and overall assessment but not the evidence that lies behind them.

And so while the government will hope the overall conclusion that it is "highly likely" the regime was responsible, there will still be ammunition for sceptics. They will say they need to see the evidence and not just assessments and judgements.

The language used is one of probability rather than certainty - that is partly the reality of intelligence assessment, but also suggests there is no single, conclusive piece of intelligence which sweeps away all doubt.

It also raises other questions which are not answered. What was the trigger for such a large use of chemical weapons when inspectors were in the country? Was it the result of an order from the top or could it have been a local commander's decision?

The intelligence is likely to inform the debate but it is not clear if it will change many minds.

Downing Street has said parliament could be recalled again over the weekend if the inspectors' assessment is published.

A spokesman added the government believed there was a case for "surgical strikes" but that the Commons debate was not about "going to war".

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has said his country will defend itself against any aggression.

The UK wants a UN Security Council resolution to take "all necessary measures" to help civilians, and presented a draft resolution to members on Wednesday.

However, Downing Street has since released a statement, based on formal legal advice by the attorney general Dominic Grieve, that states limited military strikes to deter future chemical weapons attacks would be in line with international law.

An assessment published by the Joint Intelligence Committee also argued it was "not possible for the opposition to have carried out a chemical weapons attack on this scale".

In its report, chairman Jon Day said it was "highly likely" the Assad regime was responsible.

Opening Thursday's Commons debate, Mr Cameron said: "It's not about taking sides in the conflict, it's not about invading, it's not about regime change or indeed working more closely with the opposition.

"It's about the large-scale use of chemical weapons and our response to a war crime - nothing else."

David Cameron: "This is not like Iraq"

However, he warned MPs it was up to them to make a judgement, saying: "Let's not pretend there is one smoking piece of intelligence that can solve the whole problem."

He also said he was "deeply mindful" of past conflicts - in particular "what went wrong with the Iraq conflict".

"But this is not like Iraq," he insisted. "What we are seeing in Syria is fundamentally different."

Start Quote

The government's note... has the feel of a position formed, in part, by hard lessons learnt in Iraq War - and it will divide top international lawyers”

End Quote

The UK Parliament is due to vote on whether to back the principle of military intervention. But Mr Miliband has said MPs should not have to decide on what he called an "artificial timetable".

Speaking during the Commons debate, he insisted any military action should be based on the principle that "evidence should precede decision; not decision precede evidence".

"I do not rule out supporting the prime minister," Mr Miliband said. "But I believe he has to make a better case than he did today on this question."

In other developments:

  • Six RAF Typhoon jets have been deployed to Cyprus as a "prudent and precautionary measure" to protect the UK airbase at Akrotiri.
  • Protesters gathered outside Downing Street to protest against Western intervention in the Syrian civil war, with some 5,000 people expected to demonstrate on Saturday
  • The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said he was yet to be convinced intervention would prevent future chemical weapons use
Anti-war protesters outside the Houses of Parliament on 29 August Anti-war protesters gathered outside Parliament ahead of the debate
Dominic Grieve The government's summary of Attorney General Dominic Grieve's legal advice says unilateral UK action would be permissible on humanitarian grounds
UN weapons inspector and free syrian army fighter UN chemical weapons experts have been working with the Free Syrian Army
Tank in Syria Meanwhile, fighting in Syria continued - the Free Syrian Army here seized a pro-government forces tank
queue in Haifa of Israelis waiting for gas masks People have been queuing for gas masks in neighbouring Israel amid expectations of a strike by the US military
A handout picture released by the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on August 29, 2013 shows Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (L) meeting with a Yemeni delegation of politicians in Damascus Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, pictured here meeting a Yemeni delegate in Damascus, said his country would defend itself against any aggression

The Speaker of the Syrian parliament has written to his counterpart in London inviting a British parliamentary delegation to visit Damascus as soon as possible.

French President Francois Hollande has also yet to decide about a military intervention. But on Thursday, after meeting Ahmed Jarba, the head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, Mr Hollande said a political solution would only be possible if "the international community can put a temporary stop to this escalation in violence".

Elsewhere, a Chinese state-run newspaper has warned Western governments that there are no excuses for air strikes on Syria before the UN has completed its investigation.

And Russia, President Assad's main international ally, also says it opposes any foreign military intervention in Syria.

But in the event of any military action, BBC defence correspondent Caroline Wyatt said cruise missiles could be launched from US ships in the Gulf or the Mediterranean, or Royal Navy vessels including submarine HMS Tireless.

Forces which could be used against Syria
Map: Forces which could be used in strikes against Syria
  • Four US destroyers - USS Gravely, USS Ramage, USS Barry and USS Mahan are in the eastern Mediterranean, equipped with cruise missiles
  • Cruise missiles could also be launched from submarines, including a British Trafalgar class boat; HMS Tireless was reportedly sighted in Gibraltar at the weekend
  • Airbases at Incirlik and Izmir in Turkey, and in Jordan, could be used to carry out strikes
  • Two aircraft carriers - USS Nimitz and USS Harry S Truman, along with escort ships, are in the wider region
  • The Royal Navy's response force task group - which includes helicopter carrier HMS Illustrious and frigates HMS Montrose and HMS Westminster - is in the region on a scheduled deployment
  • RAF Akrotiri airbase in Cyprus could also be used
  • French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle is currently in Toulon in the western Mediterranean
  • French Raffale and Mirage aircraft can also operate from Al-Dhahra airbase in the UAE

More on This Story

Syria's war War in Syria


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 1019.

    It seems to me that Cameron and Obama have a hidden agenda why else would they want to bomb Syria without any real proof of who let off the chemicals for all we know it could have been extremist. That fact that they are still perusing military action is insane.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1008.

    There were 5 chemical attacks on 5 separate locations. Yet to this day,we have been shown pictures of only 1 dismembered rocket shell.
    A chemical weopan attack does not require to be unleashed via rocket or missile`s,tokyo is proof of that.
    Past Evidence has shown that during the last 2 yrs,both the rebels & assad have used chemical weopans.
    So why intervene militarially now and not earlier?

  • rate this

    Comment number 905.

    Where are the used shell, bomb or rocket casings in which the alleged chemical weapons are supposed to have been delivered?

    Why are the rebels not displaying that "evidence"?

  • rate this

    Comment number 737.

    I see double standards yet again. No-one has bothered about Mugabe and all his brutality but as soon as there is any destabilisation in the Middle East which could affect our oil supply then we take the 'moral' high ground. I abhor war of any kind and recent history tells us this is doomed and why does the UK always stick its nose in. Where are the other Arab nations they should take the lead

  • rate this

    Comment number 710.

    Many posters on here are making the claim that it does not make sense for Assad to use chemical warfare. I think it does. I believe he is trying to scare the innoent civilians to flee to mke it easier to fight the rebels.


Comments 5 of 12


More Politics stories



Try our new site and tell us what you think. Learn more
Take me there

Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.